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The Many Hearable Form Factors (Future Ear Daily Update 10-9-19)

The Many Hearable Form Factors

One of the reoccurring thoughts that’s been running through my head these past few years is that we’ll eventually have a wide variety of form factors when it comes to hearables. I believe there will be a large range of hearables-based applications spanning consumer, business, medical and industrial-focused verticals, and some of those applications might be better suited for different types of devices. So, for today’s update, I want to break down some of the different types of hearables form factors that I think we’ll see and why we’ll see them.

In the very first post I wrote for Future Ear, I mentioned that 2016 represented the first year where Bluetooth headphone sales surpassed non-Bluetooth headphone sales. As we approach 2020, this trend has only accelerated as evidenced by the sheer amount of AirPods and other truly wireless earbuds that have proliferated in the past few years. In the last two weeks, Amazon and Microsoft have each introduced a hearable as well with Echo Buds and Surface Buds, respectively.

So, in the span of a few short years, we’ve been quickly tethering our ears to our smartphones, wirelessly. Slip a pair of AirPods on and, boom, you’re synced to the aural-internet. As I mentioned at the Voice summit during the hearables panel, this has led to a behavior shift. It’s become perfectly normal to wear AirPods and the like for extended periods of time. I’ve spoken to people who say they wear them when they’re not even “using” them, as they’re leaving them in for their next call or the next video/song they stream.

These wireless ear-worn devices have helped to encourage and foster, “The Aural Attention Economy.” Daniel Ek, Spotify’s CEO, described this burgeoning economy in a blog post after acquiring Gimlet Media and Anchor:

“Consumers spend roughly the same amount of time on video as they do on audio. Video is about a trillion dollar market. And the music and radio industry is worth around a hundred billion dollars. I always come back to the same question: Are our eyes really worth 10 times more than our ears?”

In essence, there are a rising number of reasons to be synced to the audio-internet for extended periods of time, or at least have the ability to sync in and out in the same capacity that one can do so with the visual-internet via your phone. While the last decade of computing was largely based around mobile devices and the app-economy built on top of that epoch, we’re now seeing the smartphone be unbundled into all kinds of standalone products, such as wearables, or ambient type solutions, such as voice assistants.

AirPods, Pixel Buds, Echo Buds, Surface Buds, and Galaxy Buds are intended to allow the user to quickly and seamlessly pair to the user’s smartphone. We’re already seeing an increase in battery life across the devices over time as the engineers designing the products craft more efficient ways to maximize the battery life of the super-small devices. That puts these devices right in the middle of the usage spectrum, as they offer roughly 5-7 hours of continuous usage. These devices are perfect for “everyday usage” for the average consumer.

Some form factors might be better for quick interactions with a voice assistant or an audio-internet interface. Smart earrings, such as the ones from Peripherii, might be a good option on a night out to receive notifications through various chimes, audible to only the user, or brief interactions with a voice assistant, such as ordering an Uber or navigating to a restaurant. While Echo Frames might not have any type of visual AR element to them, they do allow for the user to press a button and talk to Alexa at any time. The same goes for the Echo Loop (the ring), as it comes packaged with a tiny speaker and microphone, allowing one to communicate with Alexa from their hand.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, think beyond the consumer interest of these products, and consider how these might be used in various professional settings. For example, a warehouse worker whose job it is to pick items for an order in a 100,000 square foot warehouse might find a ton of utility in being able to access a custom skill via Alexa to route them to each item. Or, a farmer who is out in a field logging data on their crops, might prefer to use a ring (that can get real messy) to log notes. One need only to think through the typical day of certain professionals to understand how these new wearables might aid these folks in their job, as these devices might be more viable initially, outside of the consumer mass market.

Sentien bone-conduction hearables

Now if you want to go in the other direction toward devices that can be used all-day, then we’re really looking at form factors like bone conduction and receiver-in-the-canal (RIC) hearing aids. Companies like Sentien are touting their bone conduction device as “the first all-day wearable audio interface.” Bone conduction devices take advantage of our ability to conduct sound through our cheekbones directly to our inner ear and therefore leaves our ears completely unoccluded. For consumers looking to be synced into the audio-internet for long periods of time and have constant access to a voice assistant, smart bone conduction devices might be a big hit.

Starkey Hearing Aids
Starkey Receiver-in-the-Canal hearing aids

Today’s predominant hearing aid form factor, the RIC, is an interesting form factor to think about in the consumer space as well. One challenge that would need to be navigated is around affordability, as part of the reason behind hearing aids’ high price tag is based around the high-end engineering required to assemble the devices, such as the custom ASIC chips which are expensive. That said, if the device is not intended for amplification purposes, but instead as an all-day hearable allowing for audio-internet access, then mimicking the battery life and rechargeability represents the bulk of the challenge.

The other challenging aspect of some type of consumer device looking like hearing aid is the negative stigma that surrounds hearing aids. Consumer electronic manufacturers might shy away from anything that is perceived as looking un-cool. That said, it ultimately might be a really good thing to have consumer devices looking like hearing aids to help dispel the negative connotation, as it would be near impossible to tell what people are actually using their devices for. In addition, there are few, if any, other form factors available on the market that offer the battery life, comfort and overall discreetness that RIC hearing aids do.

Ultimately, as more of Apple’s competitors enter into the hearables arena and challenge AirPods/Beats dominance, we’re likely to see a number of byproducts derived from the emerging war for our, “Ear Share.” One of the most obvious byproducts might be that new form factors emerge, just as Amazon introduced at its event two weeks ago, expanding the scope of the various devices that are conducive to the consumer masses, or more niche verticals specific to different professional settings.

-Thanks for Reading-


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